Today I was reading a blog about so called ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ skills that leaders must have. In the blog the author said, “In reality, there is nothing ‘soft’ about the skills needed to relate to people well enough to lead them.” The theme here is the idea that an organization functions best when leaders lead. It’s because the workers in the organization supposedly need a leader. What does the leader have to do according to the blog? The leader must hold others accountable to their commitments; marshal others to work together while following you; make timely and informed decisions; define priorities and goals; see situations from a wide, organizational perspective; etc.
That’s how the Army trained its leaders…until someone came along who paid attention. It was General Wesley Clark. When he worked at the U.S. Army’s National Training Center, he observed that the incoming battalions never beat the resident “enemy,” even though the visiting leaders were given lots of training and advice. General Clark began to wonder why. He got in a jeep and went out into the field to observe the fighting. For the visiting army, all the strategy and tactics were managed through the chain of command. This trickled down to the frontline lieutenants, who were given a set of tactical instructions and expected to execute the tasks as commanded. The soldiers just followed whatever reasonable orders were given.
The training center’s resident enemy received no such detailed tactical instruction. Their job was simple: to defeat the incoming army by whatever means necessary. It was the initiative and ingenuity of the frontline soldier that made the difference in the outcome of the battle. The frontline soldiers worked in small teams, defined the problem they faced at any moment, and invented a solution. They were free to behave as thinking adults. That is why the smaller resident enemy always won the battle. No leader got in their way.
What General Clark realized what that the actions of senior commanders could lose a battle, but their orders could not win it. Perhaps the best business leadership advice ever given was advice Stanford Professor Dr. Robert Sutton gave to a CEO. He advised: “Hire a bunch of smart people, and stay out of their way until they ask for your help.”
There is so much material out there covering the ‘How to’ for leaders, that we take it for granted that the key to success is having great leaders.
If you Google ‘books on business leadership’ your first hit will say this “Business Leadership Books - Millions of titles, new & used.” Millions of titles indeed!
But it’s not true. Great organizations don’t need leaders. And we have ample evidence that people don’t need leaders.
In a December Harvard Business Review article in 2011 the author made the following observation about the assumption that you need leaders. If you have 100,000 employees and a 10 to 1 ratio of leader to employee, then you will need 11,111 leaders. That is a costly overhead. The article then goes on to talk about a very successful 30 year old company that has no leaders, just workers.
In 2012, the Boston Research Group, along with Research Data Technology and The Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California conducted a study that surveyed over 36 thousand employees from the C-suite to the front line, across 18 countries. The single most important finding of this research was that where employees had the opportunity to self govern their behavior; the company out performed other types of management structures on all 14 measures used in the study.
There is structure to employee self-governance. We call it Peer Accountability and it is the backbone of the work I do at both my companies: Tailwind Discovery Group, and THNK. It works!